Norwegian Wood

One quiet, rainy weekend afternoon alone in my college dorm room, I was flipping through a literature textbook. “TV People” by Haruki Murakami was the very last story in the book. I read the first few lines and was immediately drawn in. I read the entire strange story, captivated.

I had never heard of Murakami. My roommate returned and, since she was an international student from Hiroshima, I asked her if she knew who he was. “Oh, yes, he’s very popular in Japan!” she exclaimed. “One of our bestselling authors!” She told me he has a very unique and beautiful way of writing, something about his choice of kanji. I wished I could read Japanese. She mentioned her favorite Murakami novel was Norwegian Wood and she thought I’d enjoy it, too.

It was 1998. I searched on the web to see what Murakami works had been translated into English. I learned that Kodansha had published Norwegian Wood in English, but it was only available in Japan. Lucky for me, I was going to Tokyo a few months later on a concert tour with one of the university ensembles!

I was in Tokyo for almost two weeks, and I looked in the English language section of every bookstore I found. No luck.

Our concert tour was hosted by a university in the Kōtō ward of Tokyo. Two of the university’s staff members went with us everywhere. One happened to be from England, and served as our translator. I asked him if he knew where I could find the English edition of Norwegian Wood. He translated my question in Japanese to his colleague, who happened to specialize in literature! He was delighted that I even knew who Haruki Murakami was, and wanted to know where I’d heard of him. I told him I had come across “TV People” in a textbook, that I had liked it so much I wanted to read more of Murakami’s writing. He said he would ask around for me.

Several days later was our final concert. Just before the concert began, our translator and the professor approached me with a small, neatly wrapped gift. I opened it up to find two small books:

The translator explained that when the professor had heard about my search, he was touched that an American student was so interested in reading a Japanese author. The professor was easily able to pick them up at the campus bookstore. He didn’t need to ask around to find them! He knew right where they were, and had planned this surprise from the moment he heard I wanted to read more Murakami.
Honestly, I was moved to tears. I bowed and bowed to express my thanks, saying “Dōmo arigatōgozaimashita!” and “Watashi wa shiawase desu!” The gift of these books was such a sweet, unexpected gesture.
The reason I had trouble finding the book in regular bookstores? It was printed specifically for Japanese students studying English. There’s even a glossary in the back, explaining key phrases and idioms.
I can’t help but smile when I’m scanning my bookshelf and see these two little books. Two years later, Norwegian Wood was finally released in English in the United States… but I’d already read it. I had my own copy. 🙂
I’d love to read some of your book-related memories. Feel free to share or leave a link in the comments.